By Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council
Over 700 people—most of them elderly or poor—died prematurely during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. This public health disaster resulted from a deadly combination of extreme weather with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, lack of preparation and inadequate response by the city and county, power and water failures, and inadequate ambulance service and hospital facilities.
The lesson from Chicago was that heat kills, particularly when public services are not ready or up to the task. Fast forward two decades—when a scientific assessment on carbon pollution-driven climate change and its impacts, as well as our own on-the-ground experiences, show us that the severity, frequency and duration of heat waves like that in Chicago have increased and are likely to continue to increase.
Climate change is happening now—and it won’t wait for us. Evidence for its impacts on human health is strong and growing. So today, I am joining scientists, public health experts, city officials and others at the Climate & Health Meeting, a conference convened in Atlanta, Georgia, to fill the gap left by the recently canceled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention organized Climate and Health Summit.
Unlike the cancelled CDC conference, this meeting will focus on both the science and the public policy and practical responses to climate change that we need to improve people’s health and save lives. We’ll first discuss the “state of science” for climate change and heat, extreme weather, food, infectious diseases, air quality and allergens, and mental health. Then we’ll explore how to translate that science into practice, policy and action, sharing lessons from across the world. And finally we’ll consider how to most effectively communicate about the climate-health connection nationally and in our communities. You can learn more about the meeting and watch it via livestream here.
Heat waves are just one of the types of extreme weather events projected to worsen with climate change. That’s why Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, has warned that climate change is “one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation.”
Climate change is a major threat facing the public’s health. Preparing for this looming challenge so that we can protect the American people starts with facing the facts. Today’s meeting, with informed discussions to connect the dots between science, evidence-based public policies and planning, and actions on the ground, is exactly the kind of discussion we need and should expect from our government agencies and policymakers.